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Urban Roots growing from farm to community

Friday, October 28, 2016, join Urban Roots at the community farm to share stories, help cultivate the farm and plant roots for the future.
Volunteers working on the Urban Roots Community Garden

Volunteers working on the Urban Roots Community Garden /Courtesy of Urban Roots

Underwriting support from:
The Urban Roots Community Garden

The Urban Roots Community Garden /Courtesy of Urban Rots

Jamie walked up one day and asked how much the cut flowers were. Given that we weren’t selling many of them that day, and that Jamie was a regular passer-by, I told him free for him today. “No, I couldn’t do that to you guys,” he says. “You don’t make much money as it is, and even though I’m broke, I love what you do. You make this neighborhood beautiful.” After bantering back and forth on price, Jamie paid me three dollars. It was all in change. A tall order for someone who has struggled with PTSD, inconsistent employment, and has formerly experienced incarceration. Nevertheless, he bought them for his girl because he loves her, and that made it worth it. While it was a small transaction in almost every regard, that was perhaps one of the most educational experiences I had this year. Jamie taught me a lot that day.

He taught me that no matter who owns a farm, the ownership of its bounty can’t be contained. He also taught me that flowers are still maybe one of the best ways to make a girl smile. But what I learned from Jamie that day - maybe nothing more than this.

We are all in need of beauty and inspiration, and no matter what our individual journey has been, the things that breed true and honest joy are worth protecting.

When we started the Urban Roots Community Farm, we called it the community farm because we didn’t believe that the ideal outcome for this property was privatized. Earth, like air, oxygen, and water, is a public good. And no matter how much we privatize it, the social, ecological and spiritual benefits from accesses to these goods can’t be ignored - even if it is legally or economically under someone else’s control. Though the farm was started as a product of privilege (and even mine specifically), I believe that when Commissioner Lenear said to me, “Perhaps white individuals need to learn how to spend down their privilege,” she was suggesting that individuals do this not only by financially supporting the right organizations, but also by imagining new ways of creating democratic ownership and collective action within our communities.

More tales from Two Cities

In the midst of all this, within our growing city, we are very privy to discussions about unseemly blights on our city’s name. Despite our economic growth, we remain ranked consistently as one of the worst places to live for persons of color. And though every week we make another top ten list, income inequality, homelessness and unemployment are continued issues that we have not had the creativity or audacity to truly resolve.

I tip my hat to organizations like Seeds of Promise, Well House, and Partners for Racism Free Community whose work is helping to shape a different perspective here. These organizations, both fully human in their imperfections and completely humanitarian in their aims, seek to reform systems of injustice from within, while simultaneously existing in tangible and meaningful ways. Though their avenues are different, their singular aim to propose new democratized systems of decision-making - one that has absconded from the monolithic culture to one that pursues justice and equality in all of its vibrant colors and cultures.

Nevertheless, between the nomination of A City Within A City by Mayor Bliss as our Mayor’s book club, to nearly constant posts on The Salon -Grand Rapids on Facebook about gentrification, we are perhaps doing a better job talking about these issues than we have in the past, without necessarily doing​ more. We are able to problematize increasing rents, massive community displacement, and even to acknowledge the role that historic and systemic oppression has on both individuals with black and brown skin currently as well as those individuals who originally inhabited these lands pre-contact, our Anishinaabe brothers and sisters. Despite all that talking, we are not always good at doing. While talking can often set the table for action, it can also just as easily set the table for complete complacency and lack of action.

Grand Rapids is ripe for action, and we have an invitation.

Over the past year, we have learned a lot about what it means to be a community farm. To listen to neighbors, individuals and community organizations, from whom we have been humbled to learn with. We have partnered with Bethany Christian Services to begin our small but humble YouthCorps program. Service-learning groups from all over our city have stopped by to help and learn about what this place can be. We have grown and sold thousands of pounds of produce from what is just a dot on the map. But perhaps the most interestingly, our neighbors, friends and allies have championed this farm that we have cultivated literally from a former parking lot.

On Friday afternoon, October 28, 2016 we are inviting all citizens to join with us at our community farm. We have had the pleasure of joining our friends and colleagues in Madison Square over the past year, and while we are still learning names, faces, and stories, we have been honored to be here. The farm we are building together is not a farm that exists for privatized good at the cost of the community (such is the way with so many organizations), but rather it is a publicly-owned good, existing for the benefit of the individual and the collective, both in our neighborhood and throughout.

We have just received some federal funding through a conservation district grant, and on Friday, we invite you, specifically our friends and neighbors in Madison, to help us continue cultivating this farm. Help us plant flowers for pollination, compost our soil for more food production and join us as we sow the literal and metaphorical roots into our home in Madison Square. Help us work to reclaim one small piece of land, similar to a park, but vibrant and living as a forest, that will provide not only singular development benefits, but rather ones that will continue to reap benefits to our neighbors in perpetuity.

To be honest, this land was their land. And then we stole it. And now, rather than watching it happen again, we are declaring with one singular voice, this place matters.

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